Florida lawmakers seek to expand African American and Holocaust education statewide

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Two new Florida bills aim expand and standardize the curriculum for students on African American history and Holocaust education — the latest legislation to emerge in a string of proposals for what children can and cannot be taught in schools statewide.

Education on these topics is widely inconsistent across the state and some districts teach them better than others, according to one of the bills’ sponsors, state Sen. Lori Berman, D-Boynton Beach.

The bills, if passed, would implement statewide testing requirements and lay out consequences for school district superintendents who fail to show they’ve been teaching and testing on that material.

“We want to have some consistency across the state,” she told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Wednesday. “Right now, each district does what they want to do, so we want to make sure it’s being done in the correct manner across the entire state.”

Berman said she expects considerable resistance in the state Legislature and under a governor who has been an outspoken critic of certain forms of teaching race relations.

“It will certainly be difficult to have this bill heard,” she said.

Currently, public schools in Florida are required by state law to teach some level of African American history, “including the history of African peoples before the political conflicts that led to the development of slavery, the passage to America, the enslavement experience, abolition, and the contributions of African Americans to society,” the law states.

That same law also requires teaching the history of the Holocaust, “in a manner that leads to an investigation of human behavior, an understanding of the ramifications of prejudice, racism, and stereotyping, and an examination of what it means to be a responsible and respectful person, for the purposes of encouraging tolerance of diversity in a pluralistic society and for nurturing and protecting democratic values and institutions.”

The new bills would require the Florida Department of Education to provide comprehensive curriculum and testing standards for that material, as well as training standards for teachers, according to Berman.

State Sen. Lori Berman

State Sen. Lori Berman (submitted photo / FPG)

Some schools and school districts do a good job at teaching these subjects, but others fall short, she said.

“There are probably districts that are not doing a very good job at teaching this right now, and so we want to beef up the requirements so that they’ll be able to understand how important it is and what they need to do,” Berman said.

Only 11 of Florida’s 67 school districts have achieved “exemplary” status in teaching these topics, according to the Florida Commission of Education’s African American History Task Force. They include Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, as well as Alachua, Duval, Gadsden, Hillsborough, Leon, Pinellas and St. Lucie counties.

The bills also would start requiring African American and Holocaust education in charter schools and private schools that accept voucher funding.

Starting in the 2023-24 school year, the state would have to verify that schools and districts are following the law in teaching these subjects, if the bills were to pass. They also would require school district superintendents and school principals to provide evidence of their teaching these subjects and, if they haven’t, explanations as to why not.

This year’s legislative efforts have included a sharp focus on education. Just last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis said that critical race theory shouldn’t be taught to Florida’s children or workers, as he pushed to ban the practice.

Critical race theory refers to a theory in history curriculum that teaches that racism is embedded in many American institutions since the country’s founding. Critical race theory isn’t part of any state-approved curriculum and isn’t taught in South Florida’s schools, school officials say.

The topic, and even the very definition, of critical race theory, has been discussed in school board meetings, state departments of education and state legislatures for years, but especially since the police killing of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that many American institutions undertook thereafter.

Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, touted the governor’s promotion of Holocaust and African American education, such as mandating the teaching about the 1920 Ocoee Massacre and its victims in Florida public school history classes.

“We can be proud of our state, our country, and America’s foundational values, while acknowledging the evils of slavery, racist violence, and racial discrimination.

“Educating students on the good and the bad in American history is required in Florida public schools, and Governor DeSantis fully supports factual historical education — as Florida law also requires,” she said in a statement.

“By contrast,” she continued, “‘critical race theory’ is not factual. It is an ideologically driven construct, which promotes unsubstantiated and divisive narratives that have no place in our classrooms.”

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, is sponsoring the House Bill dealing with expanding African American and Holocaust history. She sees this bill as clarification on the issue of critical race theory versus expanding traditional education on these subjects.

She said the bill seeks to guarantee that all school districts in the state are teaching African American history and Holocaust history throughout the year, not just on a specific holiday or during Black History Month.

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson speaks during the Juneteenth justice rally at Bill Breeze Park in Ocoee on June 19, 2020. (Rich Pope, Orlando Sentinel)

State Rep. Geraldine Thompson speaks during the Juneteenth justice rally at Bill Breeze Park in Ocoee on June 19, 2020. (Rich Pope, Orlando Sentinel) (Rich Pope / Orlando Sentinel)

“Sometimes our history is only relegated to February and that is the only time there’s a focus on it,” Thompson said. “If you can teach Shakespeare, can’t you also teach Zora Neale Hurston?”

Unlike critical race theory, which Thompson acknowledged is just a theory, these bills would expand the teaching of facts, she said. “Things that can be documented, researched and confirmed. And so it would be instruction based on facts and not theories.”

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